Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., today urged the Federal government to proceed with an abundance of caution with its nascent planning to return workers to their office locations amid the coronavirus pandemic, and offered some insider handicapping on the likelihood that Congress will act to provide more funding in the near term for Federal IT modernization.

Workforce Concern

Rep. Connolly chairs the House Government Operations Subcommittee and has long been a leader in Congress on Federal IT issues.  First and foremost, however, he represents a northern Virginia district that is densely populated with Federal government workers, and he has been a strong advocate both for maximizing telework capabilities during the pandemic, and in normal times.

Speaking during a webcast town hall meeting today, Rep. Connolly spoke about the need for a careful reopening of Federal offices, and pointed out continued social distancing measures that lawmakers are taking, to protect against spread of the virus.

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“If we have any chance of re-opening [government offices] soon, we have to have testing to validate and make sure that people can do that, and re-enter the economy slowly and safely,” the congressman said.  He said that initial rounds of guidance from the Federal government on telework and related issues for Federal employees and contractors created confusion, and suggested “that confusion persists” today.

And he cautioned that guidance issued earlier this week to start planning for re-opening government offices runs the risk of being premature and creating additional confusion for local Federal workforce managers who would have to “call the shots as they see them.” At the same time, Rep. Connolly praised Federal managers who he said made “humane, ad hoc decisions” to send their employees home to telework as the pandemic emerged, and said, “we may have to fall back on that again.”

For Federal employees and contractors whose jobs can’t be performed from home – like customs agents, prison workers, and Transportation Security Administration (TSA) employees – the congressman urged they be given appropriate personal protection equipment and guidelines on distancing to keep them safer. “Some of our Federal employees are doing the public’s  business at some risk to themselves,” he reminded.

Staunch Telework Support 

Rep. Connolly reiterated his staunch support of making more telework capabilities available to the Federal workforce and contractors even in the best of times.

“Telework is not a new concept,” he said, tracing its seeds in the government back 20 years or more.  Because of lingering doubts about the utility of telework in some quarters of government, “when the pandemic hit, we were less well prepared” to make the quick turn to working from home on a massive scale, he asserted.

“Telework is the essence of continuity of operations,” he said.  When undertaken properly, telework is a “structured program . . . carefully monitored, with rules of the road who qualifies.” He called for further integration of telework into Federal planning for workers and contractors. “It’s there for a rainy day . . . It’s good for productivity and morale,” he said, adding, “We have to come into the 21st century.”

Voting Amid the Pandemic

Speaking from his office in the U.S. Capitol complex while preparing to vote on a pandemic stimulus bill later in the day, Rep. Connolly said that House members planned to cast votes in 20-member increments in order to maintain social distancing, as having 360 members in the same room “presents a hazard.” He added, “We obviously don’t want to be vectors . . . but we have an obligation to do the peoples’ business.”

“These are very strange circumstances for the Congress . . . which has not figured out how to deploy technology to vote remotely,” he said.  “It’s a strange, almost apocalyptic environment.”

FITARA Scorecard Outlook

Rep. Connolly said the House Oversight and Reform Committee is still planning to issue its tenth FITARA (Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act) Scorecard in June, which grades major Federal agencies on their performance against a variety of metrics designed to promote IT modernization.

“We are planning for June, I hope we can still do it June,” the congressman said.  “We have slowly but surely made progress” through FITARA to promote agency progress on data center closures, moving to cloud services, and strengthening agency CIO reporting authorities, he said.

And he offered praise to Federal agency CIOs who have been operating “under very difficult circumstances” during the pandemic.

Outlook for More IT Funding

Congressman Connolly has been a prime mover behind recent efforts to leverage pandemic stimulus legislation to include a massive $3 billion increase to the Technology Modernization Fund (TMF) that funds Federal agency IT modernization projects.

Speaking at today’s event, he said it was unclear how that effort will ultimately turn out, and said larger fiscal issues will come into play.

“We are already hearing . . . on the Democratic side that we need more investments” in IT capabilities, he said.  But, he added, “on the Republican side of the aisle we are beginning to hear voices that say what about this debt, we can’t spend more money.”

“We are going to have a very strong debate about what we can afford, and what we can’t afford,” he said, arguing in favor of the longer-term benefits of Federal technology investments that have continued to pay huge dividends, like investments in the internet, the human genome, and the national highway system.

He also argued that borrowing costs are now at an all-time low, and “to not make those investments is to miss the opportunity.”

Rep. Connolly’s remarks in their entirety can be accessed here.

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John Curran
John Curran
John Curran is MeriTalk's Managing Editor covering the intersection of government and technology.